By: ANDREW MENDLER
In recent weeks, First Nations across Canada have rejected the recently tabled Bill C-33, the First Nation control of First Nations Education Act.
According to the federal government, the proposed legislation will provide First Nations students with “the education standards, supports and opportunities that most Canadians take for granted” and “will require that First Nations schools design curriculums that ensure students can transfer seamlessly between schools on and off reserve, that students meet minimum attendance requirements, that teachers are properly certified, and that First Nations schools award widely recognized diplomas or certificates.”
The bill was publicly criticized and rejected by a group of First Nations Chiefs at a press conference on April 28 in Ottawa, as they feel the government is still refusing to give up control of First Nations education.
“I believe that this bill is tarnished by the same thinking that gave way to the residential school system,” said Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
“Bill C-33 is not about our control of education. It is a broad discretion granted to the minister to appoint intervention mechanisms. It is about delegated and limited participation in advisory committees. It is about limited participation in the administration of education. We already have that. This Bill offends the treaty relationship and we must reject it.”
Nepinak feels that the Bill and new educational agreement “has to flow from each communities’ meaningful participation” and has to allow First Nations students to build a “strong indigenous identity.”
“I, as a treaty person with children in our education system, will say that the birth right of my children can not be negotiated away from a conference floor in Ottawa after a short discussion and a pre-negotiated resolution.”
Many, including Nepinak, are upset that the proposed legislation forces First Nations to meet provincially set standards, have teachers certified by the province, and allows the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to chose who sits on decision-making councils.
Chief Okinawa Wallace Fox, who attended the press conference representing Onion Lake and Treaty 6, feels the Bill is “unacceptable”.
“This is a farce. I speak on behalf of the people in our community and those in the territory of Treaty 6 that I come from. There is no such thing as First Nation education, controlled education, when the minister has the ultimate control. Once again, it is the federal government dictating arbitrarily to good little Indians that we know what is best for you,” said Wallace Fox.
“We have the inherent right to educate our own children. We always have. We never relinquished that.”
Preston Huppie, who is a teacher at the Kehewin Community Education Centre and recently finished his Masters degree in Indigenous Peoples Education, says that First Nations want the ability to design a curriculum that includes indigenous perspectives and includes their own standards to assess the curriculum and its different perspectives.
“We want total control, just hand it over,” said Huppie.
“More autonomy needed when it comes to First Nations education; more from the community, more from an indigenous knowledge perspective, and a language and culture perspective. We need to infuse social studies, English, math, sciences, all the Western knowledge, with an indigenous perspective and an indigenous knowledge. As First Nations, as teachers, as a community, that is where we want to go.”
Current statistics show high school graduation rates on reserves to be at just over 35 per cent, which is less than half of the 78 per cent of students who graduate from schools not on reserves.
Huppie feels those stats would change if First Nations schools were allowed to create more of a cultural feel.
“I believe the curriculum and the programs of studies are still producing the same results as 20 years ago; the high dropout rates. When an indigenous person is going into a classroom the curriculum and perspectives are strictly Western knowledge,” said Huppie. “Think of Ukrainian, Polish, Francophone schools; those perspectives are there when you are at a school that provides it. When there is a First Nations population make them feel it. This is treaty six territory and if you didn’t know that, you should. You should also know the different areas in Cree, the different migration patterns, and the different sacred sites that are in Alberta. Things that really we never learnt when we went to school and they need to put that in (the curriculum). There are a lot of improvements that need to be made.”
Bernard Valcourt, federal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development has stood behind the proposed legislation saying that it will give First Nations control of their educational system.
“First Nations are best placed to know what their children need; that’s why Bill C-33 would ensure that responsibility and accountability rests with First Nations for administration of their own education systems on reserves,” said Valcourt in a statement released on April 28.
He added, “I’ve extended an invitation to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) to work on a political protocol to establish exactly how the members of the Joint Council would be chosen with meaningful input from First Nations, and how the Joint Council would then work with First Nations to develop regulations.”
The problem, according to many First Nation chiefs, was former AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo wasn’t doing a great job collecting input from all First Nations across the country. Atleo officially resigned from the role on May 1.
Wallace Fox representing 5,500 people throughout Treaty 6, says those living in the treaty area have not been consulted on this bill.
“We at Onion Lake have not been provided with any consultation to this whole exercise,” said Wallace Fox.
Huppie feels the AFN isn’t the organization the government thinks it is.
“The government figures they are giving us leeway through the AFN. According to the federal government, the AFN is this overarching representative of First Nations, when they really are not,” said Huppie. “A lot of people are not in favour of what the AFN wants, which is to pass (Bill C-33).”
Huppie believes the government needs bring the right people to the table in order to create a bill that will better First Nations education.
“You need the right players, people who know what needs to be in the curriculum when it comes to an indigenous perceptive. I believe Alberta Education needs to work with First Nations reserves in order to bring in these people,” said Huppie.
“Alberta Education has to let First Nations say what is needed and the right players have to be there. When I say right players I mean: elders with indigenous knowledge, educated First Nations individuals who have a Masters degree, that have a teaching degree, that have a doctorate degree. These are the players that need to be there.”
Huppie says that First Nations chiefs, teachers and parents know what improvements they want to make and how they want their education system to be. They just need the ability and control to take it there.
“It is a way of being, and you bring this way of being into your classroom. That means having indigenous perspectives all of the time and then you infuse the Western knowledge perspectives. As soon as you walk into our school you are going to see there is an indigenous feeling, an atmosphere and the teachers are passing on the knowledge, the ceremonies and traditions,” said Huppie.
“First Nations students are lost without their culture, they are following pop culture and they need their First Nations culture. Of course there have been a lot of improvements since residential schools but there definitely needs to be more. There needs to be a total indulgence of indigenous knowledge and perspectives by the age of seven, and then from there you start to learn Western knowledge. By the time you are seven you should be able to have your language, your culture and know some ceremony and then instill Western knowledge. There is a lot of research out there that proved this has happened in the past and that is has worked in other places.”
The government officially put the bill on hold until the AFN clarifies its position following the resignation of Atleo.